How I survived an overseas holiday without drinking a drop of alcohol

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It’s springtime and I’m on holiday in Italy doing my best to live La Dolce Vita: sitting in a tiny trattoria on a beautiful, warm evening and watching people stroll down cobbled streets on their nightly passeggiata.

Surrounded by chattering tourists, I spoon up tiramisu after enjoying delicious bruschetta with vine tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella and feel (almost) content.

The only thing missing is a large glass of chianti. Or a sweet limoncello. Or a grappa.

Of all the challenges of a year of not drinking booze, visiting Italy must surely be up there with the hardest of them.

But, spoiler — I survived this particular challenge without drinking a single drop. 

Flip’s tips for a no-booze holiday

  • Refocus on the positives. No hangovers means more energy and time to explore new cities
  • Turn your glass upside down in restaurants to avoid being offered wine 
  • Treat yourself. Spend money you would have spent on booze on other things you enjoy
  • Experiment with non-alcoholic drinks. Mocktails that come with an umbrella and stripey straw are fun and feel festive 
  • Have a glass always in hand when holidaying with friends — they’ll skip over you when buying rounds and eventually forget you’re not drinking.

It’s true that holidaying without alcohol in a country renowned for its wine and liquors can feel sorely like deprivation, even while you’re indulging in plenty of other treats.

To do it, you’ll need steely resolve, because the alcoholic temptations start even before you’ve boarded the plane.

First, there’s the inevitable passage through duty free, with what seems like acres of glittering liquor bottles at prices so discounted it feels rude not to stock up on the maximum allowed.

Having survived that gauntlet, if you are fortunate to beg a pass, the next stop is the airport lounge, where a well-stocked bar offers free wine, champagne and free-pour whiskey to indulge in at all hours (and I witnessed plenty of people getting stuck in before breakfast).

Then it’s onto the plane, with its hours-long supply of usually gratis G&Ts — in fact, the first thing hosties hand you is a drinks menu.

And that’s all before leaving Australian airspace, let alone touching down on foreign soil ideal for growing wine grapes.

I had a good time without alcohol — you can too

For many of us, drinking and holidays have become inextricably intertwined and it feels weird to have one without the other.

Photo of mocktail and nibble food on a table that Flip Prior enjoyed on her Italian holiday
IMAGEI ordered a mocktail and out came this. I love this country.(ABC Life: Flip Prior)

Alcohol is a faithful companion for times when work and other life responsibilities have been consigned to a back seat and we have luxurious hours to sleep off any excessive late-night behaviour.

Let me guess: the idea of holidaying without a cocktail in hand probably makes you aghast.

You think it can’t be done and it would be a horrible, pointless experience.

But you can do it, and still have a good time. I’m living proof.

As I’ve travelled around, I’ve found bars and restaurants across the country always already lined with tipsy tourists swigging spritzes in the sun not long after breakfast.Resisting the urge to drinkMaking a promise to someone important and drinking non-alcoholic beer in a stubby cooler at parties are just some of the strategies readers shared for staying on track when trying to reduce their alcohol intake.Read more

Wines and spirits are outrageously cheap in Europe and every region has a local drop that restaurateurs are keen for tourists to try.

Being in an exotic location with interesting new varieties definitely makes it seem harder to say no — and wine with dinner in Italy is de rigeur.

But having had a bit of practice over three months, refusing booze in bars and restaurants is starting to become automatic.

And there are some strategies that help to shut down dissent.

Tricks that helped me resist temptation

Flip kneeling down patting two cats in Italy
IMAGEI made a couple of furry friends during my sober holiday.(ABC Life: Flip Prior)

When I was with friends, the trick was to always have a full glass of something in hand, so they looked past me when buying a round.

By the time they were two drinks in they generally stopped noticing I wasn’t drinking and remarking on it — and by the time they were drunk, they forgot about it altogether.

Turning the wine glass upside down on arrival in restaurants and immediately ordering mineral water usually stops the drinks menu being proffered in your direction.Learning to unwind without alcoholTwo months in to my year of sobriety, it finally happened: a ferocious craving for wine. But I tricked my craving brain into thinking its emotional trigger had been fulfilled, writes Flip Prior.Read more

It makes it clear to service staff you are not interested in drinking, without any awkward conversations.

While it might feel unnatural at first, you’ll be surprised at how little anyone else cares.

Few service staff would give anyone a hard time for declining alcohol. Not like friends or family, who I’ve found far more likely to apply social pressure.

Of course, even as your mouth learns to say no, your head might be screaming: “Bring me wine, dammit, I’m on holidays and I deserve it.”I holidayed in Italy without a drop of wine. I didn’t just survive, I thrivedOf all the challenges of a year of not drinking booze, visiting Italy must surely be up there with the hardest of them, writes Flip Prior.Read more

I know. I know. I get it. I really do.

There have definitely been times when I’ve felt I was missing out.

Like the night I declined local wine in that candlelit trattoria, on that perfect spring night in Rome.

Or the day I visited a friend, and her Italian husband’s Australian visa unexpectedly came through, and his mother cracked a bottle of sparkling red to celebrate with a toast.

Or when on the bits of the trip I travelled solo, I had to walk past busy bars instead of venturing into them: an unwelcome new departure for someone who’s always loved staying out late.How to cut back on the boozeFor some of us taking a break from alcohol can be tough, even if it’s something we really want. But putting a few simple strategies in place can help you be booze free.Read more

Usually, hopping on a bar stool and chatting to bartenders over a drink is a great option when travelling solo, but I’ve felt awkward about doing that with just water in hand.

Something about drinking in foreign countries feels wild and free and fun and holds the promise of adventure.

Not doing it can feel a frustratingly boring and lonely choice.

In particularly grumpy moments, gazing at ancient frescoes depicting people getting frisky under the gaze of angels while quaffing wine, I thought: Who am I to reject human vices, when they’ve been enjoyed over millennia?

But in the end, my resolve proved as unshakable as the columns holding up the Pantheon and I sailed past the 100 days mark of my quest.

I had more energy (and dessert)

Managing mental health while travellingIt’s worth putting some effort into planning if you’re worried about the impact of travel on your mental health.Read more

On the whole, I found any temporary challenges or weakened resolve could be overcome with a bit of perspective — would drinking a wine really be worth resetting my alcohol free days back to zero?

Reminding myself that any impulses would pass and focusing on the positives of the decision not to drink also helped.

Not being hungover meant I was awake early and had the energy to walk for hours each day around cities and up and down mountains, soaking in incredible sights, culture and history without sleeping away mornings in bed.

Money I saved on cocktails was spent on slightly fancier dinners and tickets to museums and other attractions. And being sober and alert to my surroundings made me much more confident to use public transit systems alone at night, saving a fortune on expensive taxis.

While I might not have been able to sample local vinos, the same cannot be said for pizza and pasta, which I enjoyed in vast quantities without a skerrick of guilt.

And hot tip — when you’re alcohol-free in Italy, it’s perfectly legitimate to eat tiramisu and gelato every single day.

I’ll drink (sparkling water) to that.